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Tennis' gambling problem goes beyond match-fixing claims

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OTL: Tennis and match fixing (4:26)

Today on OTL we speak with a member of the British Parliament who's calling for hearings due to reports that tennis matches have been fixed in the past and that the governing body of the sport may have turned a blind eye to it. (4:26)

Tennis has a gambling problem, but it isn't anchored in the story that has been generating headlines since the start of the Australian Open.

The BCC and BuzzFeed posted a joint report just hours before the start of the year's first Slam on Monday, claiming the powers that be failed to aggressively hunt down and prosecute match-fixers. The real problem is that tennis is tailor-made for the rapidly evolving gambling infrastructure, and the leaders of the game have been embracing partnerships with gambling enterprises without seeming to appreciate, or in some cases agree upon, the implications and consequences of those partnerships.

As Chris Kermode, executive chairman and president of the ATP, insisted in an interview with ESPN on Monday: "Betting is not an illegal activity [in many places], it can often be an enhancement [to enjoying game]."

So here's the problem, or problems. Tennis has always been very attractive to gamblers. For years, bookmakers' kiosks were common fixtures at some tennis tournaments, including Wimbledon. Betting on matches is a legal, socially acceptable, robust pastime in Europe and Russia and other places outside the United States. Some of those places also have flourishing crime syndicates to whom tennis players might seem like ideal partners -- whether they volunteer or need to be recruited.

A sport played by individuals, tennis is relatively easy to fix. In recent years, the combination of blazing fast broadband and the unique structure of tennis scoring has created all kinds of options that appeal to the operators of betting sites because they can pump out cash. You can bet on matches, on individual sets, even on games. Changeovers give bettors ample time to make book via laptops or cell phones. The day might not be that far off when you can bet on the outcome of a Hawkeye challenge, and don't think someone won't do it.

Also, there's almost always action for anyone hungering for it. It seems crazy, but the color of the money you win, or lose, is the same whether you're betting on a first-round match in a lowly Challenger tournament in Norway or the final at Wimbledon.

These realities might help explain why Sportradar, a sports data technology and services company, recently signed a deal paying the International Tennis Federation $70 million over five years for exclusive access to real-time scores and stats at ITF tournaments. According to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal, tennis officials knew the hefty payout was offered largely because of the value that such live data has to gamblers and bookmakers.

In another major deal, the ITF sold the title sponsorship of Davis and Fed Cups to Betway, an online betting company. Sources close to the negotiations with Betway told ESPN.com that there was significant resistance in tennis circles to forming the partnership, but advocates of the deal won the day.

There was similar resistance, according to a source, to another deal that received attention at the Australian Open this week, an issue that has revealed some dissension within the constituents in the game.

William Hill, another online betting company, is in the rotation on the electronic signage board in Rod Laver Arena. While addressing match-fixing at a post-match press conference, ATP No. 2 Andy Murray suggested that it was "hypocritical" for tournaments to take on betting companies as sponsors, given that players are forbidden to accept endorsement deals with the same agencies.

Addressing that criticism, Kermode told ESPN.com in an email: "When the rule [forbidding endorsements by players, but allowing tournament sponsorships] was discussed at the ATP board level, it wasn't a cut-and-dried case. ... [But] there was the view that having a betting partnership with an individual player could potentially lead to a greater perception of ownership there. I think that can be up for debate."

The greatest impediment to tennis coming up with a unified, satisfying strategy toward gaming is the lack of a central governing authority. The ITF and ATP and WTA tours are the major players. The Grand Slams are independent entities that can act unilaterally, but they usually work together through the Grand Slam committee and bodies like the Tennis Integrity Board, which reviewed William Hills' bid to be an Australian Open sponsor.

That four-person board consists of All England Lawn Tennis Club chairman Philip Brook, ITF president Dave Haggerty, WTA CEO Steve Simon and Kermode. They approved the William Hill deal. Those who oppose such deals, and believe tennis ought to resist any engagement with gambling enterprises, were granted just one concession (which also applies to the Betway deal): There is no pathway of any kind, including click-throughs, from tournament-related advertising to the betting sites.

The current controversy, which is less about match-fixing than the difficulty of actually proving matches have been fixed and identifying the culprits, has provided an important wake-up call to tennis officials who might not have understood how deeply they've become entwined with gambling entities, and where those associations might lead.

The commercial potential of a partnership between tennis and gambling entities is becoming obvious, but so are the ethical issues inherent in the association. In fact, those might just be emerging.